The U.S. Army wants to move from using robots as tools to creating a human-robot cooperative that will make machines trusted members of the military.
"The issue is can I have a squad augmented with robots cover more ground, be more effective, do more things on a 72-hour operation than they can today?" asked Lt. Col. Stuart Hatfield, Branch Chief of Soldier Systems and Unmanned Ground Systems with the Army. "We see a transition from a dumb robot being a tool to it becoming a member of the team. Do I have a robot that carries my stuff, or do I have a robot that is a member of the squad?"
The Army is using robots, such as semi-autonomous vehicles, mainly as dumb tools. However, the military has a different vision of the future of robotics and how the machines will fit in a soldier's life at home base, as well as on the battlefield.
In 20 to 40 years, humanoid robots, using human tools, could precede soldiers into dangerous areas, performing tasks such as turning a wrench to open valves, opening doors and climbing ladders. Some day, the Army might send autonomous robots into battle to physically engage with the enemy.
While that scenario is likely decades away, the Army is working on semi-autonomous vehicles that can lead convoys and scan for IEDs (improvised explosive devices), robotic exoskeletons that can help soldiers move faster and longer, and wheeled robots that can carry soldiers' heavy packs, freeing troops to be more agile and less fatigued.
"It's about maintaining overmatch," Hatfield said. "The saying is, 'We never want to go into a fair fight.' You want everything to your advantage. If you're wearing 40 or 50 pounds of body armor, and you have 100 pounds on your back and you're chasing a guy in flip flops up a hill, you're at a disadvantage already. We want to lighten the load for the soldier."
The Army has tried to trim some of that weight, making lighter body armor, helmets and night-vision sensors, but they've hit a wall with that effort.
"We're at a place where there's not a lot more to save, and soldiers are still carrying 100-to-120-pound backpacks," Hatfield said. "Soldiers can carry a certain amount so they're forced to make trades. Do I carry extra ammo or water? If we can no longer lighten the load that a soldier has to carry, we have to look at off-loading that load for him."
If the soldier doesn't have to worry about how much he can carry, he can take extra water and ammunition, along with an extra pair of night-vision sensors.
The Army's plan is that a robot will make that happen.
Last year, for instance, the Army deployed four Lockheed Martin Squad Mission Support Systems to support a squad in Afghanistan as a test. Each semi-autonomous robot, which was derived from a six-wheel all-terrain vehicle that had a flat bed and no seats, was designed to carry 1,200 pounds of soldiers' gear.
The test had mixed results.
Hatfield reported that "soldiers being soldiers," the troops loaded up the robotic vehicles with as much as 4,000 pounds of gear and then complained the vehicles weren't fast enough.
While the vehicles were designed to be able to drive themselves, the soldiers never let them run autonomously.
"As they moved around the battlefield, they used it to carry sand bags and pickets and wire and water," Hatfield said. "The soldier had to use a controller to drive it forward... They did not trust it, so they never used the autonomous aspect. They didn't want it running over someone."
Greg Hudas, the Army's chief engineer for ground vehicle robotics, told Computerworld that soldiers' trust is critical to having robots work with the squads.
"If the soldier doesn't trust it as a teammate, the soldier won't use the technology and we're back to square one," Hudas said. "There has to be an element of trust. Those squads are very delicate structures. The machines have to fit in perfectly."
The Army's vision is to make robotics part of the unit, but that is going to take trust and a whole new level of human-robot cooperation.
"We want to make it seamless. We want to make a robot an actual squad member," Hudas said. "And whether it's a human or a machine, we want to make it transparent. Each member in a squad has a set of duties on a mission. If we replace a squad member with a robot, we want people to feel comfortable with the robot acting as a teammate. That involves some trust and performance issues. That robot has to be able to keep up with them."
The Army is working on a robot that would serve in a critical, potentially life-saving capacity.
One project is an autonomous vehicle that will lead military convoys in order to search for IEDs in the road. If a robotic vehicle finds an explosive in the road, another robot would dig it out, protecting the soldiers further back in the convoy from deadly explosions, Hudas said.
The Army also is working on semi-autonomous vehicles that would allow a driver to step outside the vehicle or perform other tasks while the vehicle takes over driving, Hudas said.
"We need to test for reliability and failure and see how the humans interact with it," he added. "It's not only about the human interaction with the machine but the machine needs to interact with the human."
For instance, the vehicle might be driving itself when it encounters an obstacle that it's not sure how to get around. If the robot warns the driver that it needs help but the soldier isn't able to take over, the vehicle needs to know when it has to handle the situation itself.
"We're looking at the vehicle being able to decide when to assume responsibility," said Hudas. "We're looking into the problem of the machine understanding the consciousness of humans. Are they drowsy or are they so intent on another task that if they take control of the vehicle, will it be dangerous? The interaction needs to be tightly coupled between the human and the machine."
Hudas said the Army is probably five to 10 years away from having a robotic vehicle that could make its own decisions.
To get some of the "smarts" into the robots, the Army is working with 5D Robotics Inc., a robotics software company, which in turn is working with DRS Technologies and Segway Inc. 5D said it is trying to integrate human behaviors into robots, such as robotic assistants that carry soldier's packs or small wheeled robots the size of a big shoe box that can carry cameras into dangerous areas.
Jackie Fenn, an analyst with Gartner Inc., said the hardest part about building military robots will be making them able to move easily and quickly over tough, often dangerous, terrain. That, she added, will be harder to do than making them smart enough to act autonomously.
"I do like that notion of the robotic assistant," she said. "What work you can offload to robots is a very promising angle... But trust is critical. You really get that by having it work. When humans see that there are things they wouldn't be able to do without a robot, that's when the real change in thinking happens. If you can send a robot in to check out a building and keep a soldier back and safe, then that really adds value."
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.